Supernatural‘s seventh season is an odd one; it stands apart from all the others, with one central set of bad guys who appear in the premiere and are vanquished in the finale. It’s also the most overtly political of all the seasons. The Leviathans, ancient beings from before the age of men or angels, take the form of 1 per cent types and corporate CEOs. However, the episode I want to talk about (“The Born-Again Identity”) doesn’t really have anything to do with the main plot. Instead, it’s a powerful examination of depression, a really good wrap-up of many loose threads from previous seasons, and an episode that I’ve come back to again and again.
A little backstory: Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) let Lucifer possess him, and threw himself into the pit of Hell at the end of Season 5. Season 6 saw him returned from Hell, but without his soul. He didn’t sleep, had no conscience, and didn’t particularly care about curbing his self-destructive ways. Sam’s soul was trapped in Hell for over a year, as he was tortured by a very angry Lucifer. When it was returned to his body, there was no way to heal it completely, so a wall was put up inside Sam’s mind to block out those awful memories and prevent them from driving him insane. But in the course of fighting off a power-hungry angel towards the end of Season 6, the wall was destroyed, and Sam was left with vivid hallucinations of Lucifer (Mark Pellegrino) haunting him wherever he went. Meanwhile, his brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) struggled to cope with being betrayed by one of his closest allies, the angel Castiel (Misha Collins), who attempted to become God and let the Leviathans loose on the world and died in the process.
“The Born-Again Identity” begins with a desperately sleep-deprived Sam wandering through a train yard, unable to escape Lucifer’s taunts. He’s hit by a car and committed to the local hospital’s psychiatric ward, as he hasn’t slept in five days and sedatives don’t seem to work–unbeknownst to the doctors or even to Dean, Lucifer has been keeping Sam awake and steadily driving him mad. Pellegrino has a great time with the script here, blasting music and lighting firecrackers and generally being completely evil to poor Sam as he lies in his hospital bed.
Sam is oddly content about Lucifer destroying his mind once and for all, but Dean won’t have any of it. Desperate for an answer, he calls every contact he has, and eventually gets a lead: a new faith healer, Emmanuel, has mysteriously appeared on the scene and is apparently the real deal. When Dean tracks him down, Emmanuel is revealed to be a resurrected Castiel, with total amnesia and no idea why he can heal anyone he touches. Dean is confused, overwhelmed, and very hurt, unsure about how to deal with the sudden reappearance of his best friend. Nonetheless, he takes Cas to the hospital, along with an old demon enemy/ally named Meg (the always wonderful Rachel Milner). Sam, meanwhile, makes friends with a young girl named Marin (Kacey Rohl), who’s been locked up because she keeps hearing the voice of her dead brother and was in a fire she swears she didn’t set herself. Sam recognizes that she’s being haunted by a ghost, and helps put her brother’s soul to rest despite his own mental breakdown. Castiel arrives at the hospital just in time to save Sam from getting his brain fried by a demon wielding the electroshock machine, but he can’t rebuild the mental wall. Instead, he decides to shift Sam’s pain into his own mind, as penance for his previous crimes. The Winchesters leave Cas comatose in the hospital, with Meg to watch over him until he recovers.
“The Born-Again Identity” is oddly comforting for me, as someone who has struggled with mental health issues. When you’re in the midst of a bad depressive episode, it really can feel like you’re being broken down piece by piece by an evil force inside your head. However much you might resist it at first, when it becomes truly bad you do end up like Sam, wearily resigned to your fate even when everyone else around you insists you should be able to fight. Depression consumes an enormous amount of energy, both mental and physical, and Sam’s need for rest mirrors that very well. Nothing—not the drugs he takes, the kindness he shows Marin, nor the acceptance he shows Lucifer—will stop the breakdown. Not even an angel can fix him, because there is no fix for depression. However, Castiel’s offer is a really beautiful example of how a good support structure can help shift that pain. While it’s obviously not recommended that anyone take on another person’s depression completely (plus, you know, it’s impossible), Castiel is the first to reach out and deal with Sam’s issues with the weight they deserve. There is no way to provide a fix, but your friends and family can provide a cushion to help soften those blows from the demons you face.
This is also a good time to talk about the magic of the Supernatural fandom. I found the show during a rough year of my life, and ended up joining my friends’ Supernatural-focused Facebook group. This community was there for me as I watched through the first eight seasons last summer, sharing the highs and lows with me and being my support structure as I worked through my own depression. Supernatural grabbed me with a force I hadn’t felt since my Whedon-obsessed teenage years. It inspired me to read and write fan-fiction again, and generally gave me back a sense of happiness that I hadn’t known since I was in high school. I knew it was silly and sometimes problematic, but I didn’t care, as the show and its loving fandom were there with open arms. When I went to the Supernatural convention in Vancouver, actor Mark Sheppard held a panel. He asked who was at the Con for the very first time and when we raised our hands, he said, “Well, look around. These people are your new friends.” It’s dorky, but it’s true, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s easy to joke about the quirky nature of fandoms, but at the end of the day they are your allies, your friends, and the angels who are willing to fight your demons with you.